Beau Is Afraid

Beau Is Afraid, 2023, 3 ¼ stars

Ari is absurd

… with a heavy dose of Surrealism

Exclusive to MeierMovies, September 26, 2023 

Surrealism is often described as an artistic movement devoted to releasing the potential of the subconscious (or unconscious, if you prefer), often through the use of incongruous, irrational or shockingly imaginative images and thoughts. Absurdism, though similar, is often characterized by an even more bizarre or ridiculous assortment of events and situations that make little sense on their face but have the potential to expose essential truths about human existence.

Combine these two styles, throw in writer-director Ari Aster’s penchant for shock and actor Joaquin Phoenix’s unsettling unpredictability, add a dash of Kafka (himself a master of the absurd) and blushes of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, and you get Beau Is Afraid, one of the year’s most visionary and inventive yet grueling cinematic odysseys.

With that pretentious analysis (fitting for an occasionally pretentious film) out of the way, let me pivot to a complete lack of pretention: When attempting to critique this type of film, it often helps to throw explanations aside and simply ask, “Do I like it?” or “Does the film, in its infuriating confusion, speak to me?” The exhausting three-hour runtime aside, my answer is yes.

Phoenix is Beau, an emotionally besieged man in an emotionally besieged world, who is continually vexed in his attempt to visit his mother. Through inconveniences (such as oversleeping and then losing his apartment key just two hours before his flight) and tragedies (like being chased and stabbed by lunatics and struck by a car), Beau struggles onward, not knowing what awaits him at home. Predictably, he meets an assortment of odd characters on his journey, including a seemingly well-meaning yet creepy couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan) and a woman from his past (Parker Posey, in a performance that will blow the mind of Poseyphiles). In other noteworthy appearances are Richard Kind as Beau’s family lawyer, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Beau’s therapist and Patti LuPone as his mother.

Regardless of your reaction to the film – which is more drama and comedy than horror, marking a departure for Aster – you must admit that the writer-director and his usual cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, have balls, metaphorically. But Beau has balls literally – giant ones, apparently thanks to his never having ejaculated. He’s avoided sex because he swore to save himself for a childhood sweetheart and because his mother told him his heretofore virgin father died on their wedding night from an undiagnosed heart condition. He came and he went. Or so we think until the oddest moment in this odd film reveals that his dad might actually be a gigantic penis and testicles living in his mom’s attic. That’s a bridge too far for this film critic, but by the time that scene arrives, I had already invested enough energy in the movie to make it jumping-the-shark-proof.

How you react to that moment and the many others that defy logic and discipline will depend on your own taste, patience and emotional baggage. To paraphrase the great Tom Lehrer (and in keeping with the mood of much of the movie), “Film is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”

Despite the aforementioned crudeness, the film can be high-brow too, most noticeably in one spectacular, partially animated sequence in which Beau imagines himself as the protagonist of a play he’s watching. He projects his own life, anxiety and fear onto the production’s lead character, going so far as to assign himself the wife and children he never had. It’s an invented life even more surreal than the one he’s actually living, or, depending upon your interpretation, imagining he’s living. And it goes far beyond anything hinted at in Aster’s simple seven-minute short from 2011 (simply titled Beau) that serves as inspiration for the feature.

But even that short is laced with unease and presented in a fever dream of discomfort that Aster (Hereditary, Midsommer) has come to be known for. These are not the lives any of us would want to live, or even dream about. But if surreal and absurd cinema has taught us anything, it’s that bad dreams often make good films.

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For more information about this movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia.

Following a theatrical release, Beau Is Afraid is now available on DVD/Blu-ray and via streaming at Amazon Prime Video, Vudu and Apple TV.